Inside a reactor’s heart
by RICK NORTON Associate Editor
May 14, 2014 | 2580 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Watts Bar
A CLEVELAND DELEGATION listens intently as Mike Skaggs, senior vice president for nuclear construction at TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 2, explains some of the equipment. From left are Marshall Stinnett, Cleveland Utilities controller; Janice Casteel, Cleveland city manager; Walt Vineyard, CU vice president of Information Technology; Ken Webb, CU president and CEO; and Cleveland City Councilman Bill Estes.  Banner photo, RICK NORTON
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SPRING CITY — A Cleveland Utilities delegation on Tuesday became only the fourth TVA partner to view the containment area, from inside, of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 2 reactor prior to its permanent seal in about a month.

A handful of Cleveland municipal officials also attended the rare tour which gave the local group a unique glimpse at the heart of a nuclear reactor before it is secured from any future human footprint, filled with cooling water and fueled in preparation for going online.

TVA launched construction of Units 1 and 2 simultaneously in 1973. The pair remained on pace until about 1988 when the regional power producer shut down work on Unit 2, but continued work on Unit 1. Lessening power demand forced the TVA decision; subsequently, many parts and equipment planned for Unit 2 were instead used toward completion of Unit 1.

When construction was halted, Unit 2 was about 80 percent completed. When Unit 1 went online in 1996, it became the last commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. to do so in the 20th century. When Unit 2 starts up — probably in late 2015 — it will become the first commercial facility to go online in this country in the 21st century.

The resumption of construction on Unit 2 — whose completion was originally projected to cost from $4 billion to $4.5 billion — was approved by the TVA board of directors on Aug. 1, 2007, and work resumed about 2 1/2 months later.

Mike Skaggs, senior vice president of nuclear construction for the Unit 2 project, told the 16-member Cleveland delegation the project cost is now trending toward $4 billion to $4.2 billion.

During the complex building project, TVA is focused on four factors: Safety, Quality, Cost and Schedule, Skaggs explained. He elaborated on all four during a pre-tour briefing. Safety — a collective term that includes the 4,200 on-site workers as well as ultimate nuclear plant performance — garnered most of his attention.

Of worker safety, it’s in the numbers, he said. To date, TVA contractors, construction crews and employees have exceeded 27 million hours without a lost-time accident; that is, an incident leading to an injury that prevents the worker from returning to work the next day.

“... Management sets the expectation, but it’s the workforce that carries it out,” Skaggs stressed.

As important as worker safety is to TVA and to employee families, Skaggs acknowledged the public is always especially interested in the safety performance of a nuclear plant.

“We are making Watts Bar very safe,” he assured his listeners. Earlier in his presentation, Skaggs conceded, “We play for keeps. Nuclear power is serious business.”

As serious as the giant utility already was in operating its six existing nuclear reactors (at Browns Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar), Skaggs suggested the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan on March 11, 2011, created a whole new set of standards in making nuclear power plants safe.

The Fukushima crisis resulted in a meltdown of three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors. They were damaged by a powerful earthquake which triggered a tsunami and massive flooding, and this led to the escape of a substantial amount of radioactive materials. The Fukushima meltdown became the largest nuclear incident since Chernobyl and reportedly the second (after Chernobyl) to measure Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

In America, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded with what Skaggs described in his briefing as the Fukushima Order which places a new set of even more stringent standards on existing nuclear plants and the construction of new ones.

The NRC directive means TVA is investing an additional $185 million in its Fukushima Order initiative; of this amount, $65 million is going toward the construction of a separate facility — called a flex building — which is resistant to earthquakes, floods and tornadoes. It houses a diesel generator that can pump water in to cool down the units in the event of an unplanned shutdown.

Part of TVA’s Fukushima Order initiative also involves shoring up area dams and making other modifications to protect the nuclear plant from flooding, Skaggs explained.

“It’s a waterproof, tornado-proof and seismic-proof building,” Skaggs said of the new structure.

Such a facility — which is framed in a thick layer of concrete and rebar — is now required of all new nuclear power plants, he pointed out. And, existing plants also will be required to construct such a facility. Skaggs said the Watts Bar site has already been visited by many delegations representing other existing nuclear plants across America who are preparing for the construction of their own flex buildings.

Skaggs’ detailed presentation to Cleveland visitors went far beyond Nuclear Power Plants 101; however, he hit on many highlights of the Watts Bar facility, and the new construction of Unit 2, that pointed to the mindset TVA is taking in order to start up the country’s first new nuclear power plant in almost 20 years.

Among a few points were:

- Quality Control Inspection is performed on all construction work. Currently, TVA’s quality acceptance rate hovers around 97 percent; this means about 3 percent of the completed work must be redone or altered in order to meet quality standards. Skaggs said TVA entered the Unit 2 completion project with a goal of about 95 percent acceptance. The industry standard is 92 percent, he noted.

- TVA has about 500,000 hours of construction craft work remaining before the launch of start-up operations; much of this is in the complex Control Room which Cleveland Utilities delegates visited during the 90-minute tour of the complex.

- Three years ago TVA had about 3.2 million man-hours of work remaining; the number has been trimmed dramatically since 2011, the construction leader explained.

- Once fully operational, Unit 2 will use about 990,000 gallons of water per minute in its cooling process; the water is taken from the Tennessee River where it is cleaned in an on-site treatment plant. Only treated water is used in the power plant process, he explained.

- Unit 2’s nuclear reactor is surrounded by a concrete wall whose thickness is 2 1/2 feet. Another liner plate adds a second line of protection.

- Construction of Watts Bar’s Unit 2 reactor is following a theme already required by NRC of the nuclear power industry; that is, the use of “... multiple, redundant safety systems,” Skaggs cited.

- Lessons learned in the construction and startup of Unit 1 are being fully implemented in the resumption of work on Unit 2.

- Once operational, Unit 2 will produce 1,200 megawatts of carbon-free electricity which is enough energy for approximately 650,000 homes. Unit 2’s power output will be about 40 megawatts more than Unit 1.

- Currently, the Watts Bar construction site employs about 4,200 people — 3,200 at Unit 2 and 1,000 at Unit 1. Once construction has been completed and Unit 2 is online, the entire Watts Bar complex will employ about 1,000 people; of this amount, 800 will be permanent power plant workers and 200 will be security officers.

- The current 4,200-strong workforce is commuting from five general areas: Knoxville, Chattanooga, Spring City, Athens and Bradley County. Skaggs estimated about 15 to 25 percent of the workforce comes from Cleveland and Bradley County.

- Unit 1’s spent fuel is stored on-site in an above-ground facility that is earthquake proof.

- The life span of a nuclear plant is 40 years; however, a series of modifications, upgrades and inspections can qualify a nuclear power plant for continued NRC licensing for another 20 years, which means a total longevity of 60 years, Skaggs said. A provision to add another 20 years is currently being considered.

Although Skaggs led Tuesday’s tour by the limited Cleveland Utilities delegation, he is no stranger to larger markets. He leads quarterly updates via conference calls that keep news media throughout the region and others informed of Watts Bar developments.

His most recent came May 2.

In a TVA news release, it was reported the targeted date for Unit 2’s commercial operation start-up was sometime between September 2015 and June 2016; however, Skaggs believes December 2015 is the most likely date.

“We achieved a significant milestone during the quarter as the last major systems were completed and released to pre-operational startup in support of open vessel testing,” Skaggs said in the quarterly report earlier this month. “As a result of the team’s hard work, we were able to begin OVT this week (May 2), which is slightly earlier than we expected.”

He added, “This is a major step toward achieving commercial operation by December 2015, our most likely target date.”

OVT involves pumping water into the reactor vessel through systems that are used when shutting down the reactor and in support of nuclear operations, according to the TVA news release.

On Tuesday, Skaggs told the Cleveland group TVA has now moved beyond bulk construction in the Unit 2 project and is deep into systems testing.

Nancy Mitchell, TVA customer service manager who operates out of the Chattanooga office, called Tuesday’s visit by the Cleveland delegation a “unique” opportunity because once the Unit 2 nuclear reactor containment area is sealed in a month, no human eyes will again see it from the rare inside perspective.

“It’s important that the public understand the scope of the Unit 2 project and what it means,” Mitchell said. “Sixty years from now, people will still be using its power.”

Tom Wallace, senior manager of operations, called Watts Bar — and TVA’s commitment to finish the Unit 2 reactor that was started years ago — an investment in the region.

“Watts Bar is an investment in our community and region,” Wallace offered. “We cannot pick up and move to Santa Fe or Mexico. We are here for the long term.”

Three other public utilities that are TVA partners which have viewed the Unit 2 reactor include Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga. TVA tours have also been granted to several government teams, some coming from as far away as Washington, D.C.

Cleveland Utilities representatives taking the tour included Ken Webb, president and CEO; Bart Borden, vice president of the Electric Division; Craig Mullinax, vice president of the Water Division; Walt Vineyard, vice president of Information Technology; Tim Henderson, vice president of Administrative Services; Marshall Stinnett, controller; Jan Runyon, manager of Human Resources; and Joe Cate, a member of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities.

City of Cleveland representatives were Janice Casteel, city manager; Avery Johnson, vice mayor; Bill Estes and Charlie McKenzie, city councilmen; and Beverly Lindsey, administrative assistant to the city manager.

Webb, who was named CU president and CEO in late 2013 to succeed the retiring Tom Wheeler, said visiting the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant — and especially getting the rare chance to view the containment area before its permanent seal — was a unique education for CU and city employees.

“I would like to thank the employees of TVA responsible for providing us the opportunity to visit the Watts Bar nuclear facility,” Webb stressed. “Cleveland Utilities is one of 155 local power companies purchasing wholesale power from TVA and it is always beneficial for us to learn about each other's operations and the challenges we both face as we strive to offer reliable electric service at the lowest possible cost.”

He added, “Watts Bar Unit 2 will soon become an important source of electric power to the Tennessee Valley for many decades in the future. It was very rewarding to me and the others on the tour to have the opportunity to see it at this stage of construction.”